Baseball consensus holds that umpires only get noticed when they make a bad call. Steve Fields’ career as a major league ump was bookended by two calls that put him in the spotlight. But he went to his grave insisting both were right.
His first momentous call came during the umpires strike of 1979. National League officials, Fields said, told him that crossing a picket line was the only way he’d ever achieve his boyhood dream of making it to the big leagues. He was the oldest minor-league ump in the land at the time, and he believed what he was told. So he crossed the line.
And after all those years in the bushes, Fields suddenly found himself at the highest level of his profession. But because he’d made what his new peers regarded as a deal with the devil to get there, Fields’ run in the major leagues was anything but dreamy. Instead, he encountered seasons of hate and hazing from the veteran members of the very fraternity he’d desperately wanted to join for so long.
“Since 1979, Fields has lived out one of the ugliest episodes in baseball history—the ostracism of the union umpires,” wrote Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post.
One example of the ump-on-ump cruelty: When Fields got his chin ripped open by a foul ball while working behind the plate early in a 1981 game in Cincinnati, no other members of the umping crew offered help.
“None of the other umps would take my place. They just let me stand there for three hours and bleed,” Fields told the Post. “None of the other umps would take my place. Every inning, I’d go into the Reds’ dugout and their trainer would put on butterfly stitches and patches. But every inning, from the sweat and moving your jaw yelling out pitches, it would all bust open and I’d bleed like a stuck pig.”
Fields got seven stitches after the game to close the gash. Friends say the emotional wounds he suffered that day remained raw for the rest of his life.
Fields’ second and final career-defining call came in late August 1981, in the ninth inning of a Philadelphia Phillies/Atlanta Braves game at Veterans Stadium. Fields ruled that Philly shortstop Larry Bowa missed second base while attempting an apparently routine double play. That call started one of the biggest ump-centric squabbles the game had ever seen, with Bowa and Phillies manager Dallas Green hounding Fields all over the infield, cursing and jostling him as he just tried to get away.
“It was a scene straight out of pro wrestling,” wrote then-Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Jayson Stark in his gamer.
And, just like when Fields’ face got ripped open in Cincinnati, his fellow umpires declined to help him out.
Green and Bowa were eventually ejected. Then after the game the dispute spilled into the hallways beneath Veterans Stadium. A local TV reporter named Mike Forrest attempted a post-game interview with Fields when members of the umpiring crew attacked the newsman verbally and physically. Amid a storm of “cocksucker!” and “sonuvabitch!” bombs, the umps smashed an expensive news camera as it captured the assault.
The on-field and hallway incidents, because of their intensity and duration, and the existence of videotape, became a national story. Forrest got to see footage of himself and the to-do on The Today Show on NBC the morning after. Bowa and two of the umps who attacked the reporter were fined by the league, while Green was suspended immediately.
But Fields paid the biggest price of all. Within months, he was out of his dream job, never to return. All Fields’ pals agreed on what did him in. “That call in Philadelphia cost him his job,” says Ted Young, Fields’ childhood friend and fellow baseball nut.
Deadspin recently acquired the raw video of the media/ump skirmish at the Vet from TV producer Rick Reed, complete with every period-piece slur uttered by the umps right up to the time that they destroyed Forrest’s camera. The footage arrived without any explanation of its origins or context.
So we decided to search those out. And we found that there’s a whole lot more to the tale of that tape than meets the eye.
The Veterans Stadium conflict was presented in early media reports as a standard ump vs. team rumpus—only longer and more ferocious. But as it turns out, all the anger unleashed that night was only superficially about the call on the field. Instead, the violence was a symptom of the labor strife that plagued baseball, and the entire country, in the summer of 1981. The Phillies let Fields know they knew he was a scab as they chased him all over the infield. And the umpires assaulted Forrest later that night not to help Fields, but to make sure he couldn’t talk publicly about the hellish work environment they’d created for him.
But the attacks on Fields and the reporter who was trying to interview him brought the cracks in baseball’s thin blue line out in the open. And soon after, Fields found himself being used as a pawn in a baseball labor dispute all over again.
“Steve Fields, man, he got bullet-riddled from all sides,” says Ellis Valentine, the former Montreal Expos outfielder and possessor of one of the great arms of his era. Valentine had his own big beef with Fields: He was the first guy Fields ever threw out of a game in the majors, and got a three-game suspension for his reaction to the ejection. Yet even Valentine feels to this day that everybody in baseball let Fields down.
Fields died in 2009, and friends say to his last day he was angry about how everything went down. Lots of other folks on the fight tape aren’t around anymore to talk about it, either. All the umpires on the crew that worked that 1981 game, including both umps who attack Forrest in the video, are also dead.
But enough of the participants from that night, and others who had a hand in Fields’ umping career, are still around to team up with contemporaneous news clips and game video to make it possible to piece together both a back story and epilogue to the brawl doubleheader that took place that night in Philly.
Forrest is still among us, for one. He’s retired and living in Florida, and says he’d still like answers to the question he asked that night at Veterans Stadium that got him mugged.
“I asked one question, and was rudely interrupted,” he tells me. “But I would try to ask the same questions, because that was the story: Why didn’t the other umpires assist Steve Fields in his argument with Dallas Green?”
Forrest was right then, and he’s right now. More than the slew of antique profanities from the umps that were caught on tape, or even the period-piece brawl that took place between a player, his manager, and an umpire earlier in the night, Forrest’s question was and remains the story: Why did Steve Fields have to go it alone?
Baseball has surely changed less than any of the other big American sports in recent decades. Yet for all baseball’s inertia, the game is now different enough today that a brouhaha like the one that consumed Veterans Stadium on Aug. 24, 1981, likely would no longer happen.
Umpires, for example, don’t get in on-field spats with players and managers at the rate or with the vehemence they did back in the day. Baseball’s embrace of video replay beginning in 2014 is surely responsible for some of that, along with changes in what’s considered acceptable ballyard behavior. (A couple departures from the new decorum by old baseball men: The ejection of Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon from Game 4 of last year’s NLCS provided the most quaint moments of the 2017 postseason; and Terry Collins’s “ass in the jackpot” rant from 2016.) But there was a time in the not-too-distant past when managers and umpires going toe-to-toe and nose-to-nose over a call—and even kicking dirt all over home plate and an ump’s feet as needed—was an accepted and even expected part of the game.
It’s also true that umpires no longer routinely allow the so-called “neighborhood play,” which let shortstops and second basemen swipe a foot near the base on a force play, but not actually touch it, and still get credited with a putout.
But the old unwritten rules were still in play during Fields’ days in the majors. And that led to all sorts of combustion in the top of the ninth inning of that Phillies/Braves game. With one out and the score tied 4-4, Atlanta’s Dale Murphy was at the plate facing Philadelphia reliever Ron Reed. Chris Chambliss was on first, and Eddie Miller, who was pinch running for Bob Horner, represented the go-ahead run at third. Murphy hit a ground ball up the middle, which was fielded by shortstop Larry Bowa. Rather than toss the ball to second baseman Manny Trillo, Bowa ran the ball over to second himself, and after dragging his foot over the bag, threw to first baseman Pete Rose to complete what he and almost everybody else in the stadium thought was a routine inning-ending 6-3 double play. Rose even spiked the ball toward the pitching mound, as he commonly would after catching a third-out putout at first, and started running off the field.
But wait! All of a sudden, Rose realized the umpire stationed at second base, Steve Fields, had called Chambliss safe. Rose did a 180-degree turn and scurried after the spiked ball to keep any other Braves from scoring, as Fields told the players around the middle infield that Bowa had never touched the bag.
Bowa had a reputation for feistiness. The longtime Phillies shortstop, who served as the team’s bench coach last season and was recently named an advisor to the team’s general manager, admits he earned it.“If you check my career, I’d get angry sometimes,” Bowa told Deadspin with a guilty chuckle. “But that was the maddest I’d ever been. It’s weird what you remember, but I remember that play like it was yesterday. I was sure I touched the bag with my heel. [Umpires] then always gave the infielder the benefit of the doubt. I’d never had that call before. I’m still mad about that call.”
Blake Cullen, who held the title league administrator of the National League from 1965 to 1986 and in that capacity was in charge of media and umpires, recalls that he and his boss, NL president Chub Feeney, used to award Bowa for his hotheadedness with All-Star game nods.
“We loved guys like Larry Bowa. How could you not?” Cullen tells me. “Fans picked the starters, but the league office had more control than managers over who got picked as reserves back then, and Ozzie Smith would beat him out for starter, but we’d always try to put [Bowa] on the team, because he was just fire and brimstone, the perfect kind of guy for an All-Star game. He was the kind of guy who, they’d be playing the national anthem, and he’d be screaming at the American League, ‘We’re gonna beat you fuckers!’ Because he wanted to win! And he was a good player! You just loved him.”
Bowa’s behaviors on this night only enhanced his reputation for feistiness. When Fields made his safe call, Bowa made a wild run at the ump.
Bowa’s manager, Dallas Green, wasn’t known as a hothead. But he sprinted out of the dugout toward second base and screaming in hopes of stopping Bowa from doing anything he’d regret. In so doing, Green wound up doing more or less what Bowa was preparing to do; he let loose with a tirade for the ages. Green took off his own hat so he could more effectively get in Fields’ face, then threw his cap into the dirt and kicked it. Green then knocked off Fields’ cap, and gave it the boot, too.
An announcer on the Phillies broadcaster remarked that Green’s freakout was “straight from the Earl Weaver and Billy Martin handbook of protestation.” (History remembers Weaver and Martin as the Ali and Frazier of umpire squabblers, and two of the most prolific spittle-dispensers in the sport’s history.)
The scene got even more comical as the wildly gesturing manager tried to somehow simultaneously attack Fields and keep Bowa from doing the same.
Bowa now says Green needn’t have worried so much about protecting him. “All I did was swear,” Bowa recalls. “I didn’t touch him.” (There is substantial evidence, alas, that Bowa’s memory somewhat gilds his behavior here: Replays of the on-field argument show that he bumped Fields with his chest, with some force, soon after the confrontation began.)
Green was able to put some distance between Bowa and Fields, at which point the manager resumed his own beefing with the ump.
The other umps in Fields’ crew— Frank Pulli behind home plate, Nick Colosi at 1B, and Eric Gregg at 3B—let the Phillies jostle and poke and scream at Fields for a full 30 seconds before they even showed up on the scene. Their apparent indifference left the task of saving Fields up to a player: Phillies pitcher Ron Reed, a former NBA player, ran over to literally pick up Green and haul him away. Green and Bowa were both ejected from the game, which the Phillies would eventually win in the 13th inning on a home run from second baseman Manny Trillo.
Green told the New York Times he’d seen that same sort of play “10,000 times” in his years in baseball, but had never seen an ump ignore baseball’s unwritten neighborhood rule before the Phillies/Braves tilt. “Five thousand times the fielder touches [second base], and 5,000 times he doesn’t,” Green said. “But 10,000 times the runner’s called out.”
In the local TV pregame show a night after the dustup, Phillies announcer Richie Ashburn asked Trillo, who was within feet of the pivotal play as it took place, if Bowa had touched the base or not. “Well, to tell you the truth … I mean,” Trillo said, laughing and stalling and clearly not wanting to answer.
“You’re doing an awful lot of stammering!” said Ashburn.
Trillo then confessed what he’d really seen: “I believe he missed the bag,” he said.
Just as Fields had called. But soon the ump would learn just how right Green was in his rant to the Times: The right call isn’t always the right call.
Fields grew up in the 1950s in Alexandria, Va., and like all of his childhood buddies wanted to be a big leaguer. Longtime friends in the Washington, D.C. suburb say even in that crowd Fields’ obsession with all things baseball was memorable.
“He breathed and lived baseball,” says Fields’ lifelong friend Ted Young. “When we were teenagers, we’d say, ‘Steve, on a cold night you can’t cuddle up to a wooden bat.’ Baseball was all he cared about.”
Fields was particularly smitten by Mickey Mantle. David Walkman, another boyhood buddy and baseball freak, says he and Fields were at Griffith Stadium on April 17, 1953, the day The Mick hit an estimated 565-foot blast completely out of the ballpark and into the yard of a nearby house, among the most famous homers in baseball history. For years after seeing that legendary shot, Walkman says, Fields made sure to go to every game when the Yankees came to town to play the Washington Senators, but he’d also train up to NYC to see him play at Yankee Stadium.
Young recalls Fields as one of the better ballplayers when they both attended Alexandria’s George Washington High School. That’s a place known more for producing classic rock n’ rollers—among them: Jim Morrison of the Doors, and Mama Cass and Papa John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas—than jocks.
But Fields didn’t have the right stuff to make it beyond the prep level. No college sought Fields’ baseball services. No pro baseball organization offered him a contract, either. He got the message pretty quick that he was never gonna be a big leaguer, at least as a player.
“I know he went to some tryouts,” says Perkins, another native Alexandrian. “He told me a fastball went by his head at 96 miles an hour and he dropped his bat and said, ‘That’s it!’ That’s when he knew he wasn’t good enough.”
So after his 1959 graduation from high school Fields enlisted in the Air Force. When he got out of the military, he went back to Northern Virginia, and wanted to get back in the game. So he umpired local schoolboy games, and started dreaming again: Umping would be his ticket to the bigs. With help from friends on the Washington Senators then living nearby—including Nats shortstop Ed Brinkman and reliever Dick Bosman—Fields got into minor-league umpiring in 1969.
He bounced around various podunk confederations, making as little as $500 a month during the season, before landing with the Triple-A International League in the early 1970s. He told friends about staying in $5-a-night motels with a roommate, and they saw him survive financially only by spending the winter months umpiring in Latin America, and also filling in as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service back home in Alexandria for the Christmas season. After several years at the highest level of minor leagues, in 1978, Fields was told he was the oldest (37) and highest-paid umpire in the minor leagues. But he still wasn’t really even making a living off that job. He was instead just surviving on a $1,600 a month salary, based in Norfolk and traveling from small town to small town for games.
Yet, his friends nevertheless thought it was cool that he’d stuck with their shared favorite sport well into adulthood and made it even to AAA. “I went to Puerto Rico and Norfolk to see him work,” says Walkman, a childhood friend.
But none of their boyhood baseball dreams stopped in Norfolk or San Juan, or at any other minor-league level.
“What kind of salary is [$1,600 a month] for a 37-year-old man with 11 years experience in his profession?” Fields once asked Boswell of the Washington Post.
And just when he was considering admitting his baseball fantasy was folly, the National League came calling, and made Fields an offer he didn’t refuse.
When Fields heard from NL brass in 1978, he knew labor pains were kicking in and a big job action was imminent. The MLB umps had started talking about a strike after the season, demanding better job security, a switch to an experience-based salary scale rather than a merit-based one, and, most urgently, providing in-season paid vacations for the first time.
Before tackling any of the disputed issues, MLB officials started thinking about who would work the games if the union umps walked out. American and National League offices came up with a plan that targeted experienced minor-league umps and prepared for the worst.
Then the Major League Umpires Association backed up their threat to strike, walking out at the beginning of the 1979 season. MLB officials likewise followed through and hired replacement umpires from the minors.
Paul Runge, who was president of the umpire union during Fields’ era, now recalls that leading up to the strike his members received word that MLB officials were playing hardball with the minor league umps. “We were told they went to them and said, ‘You come up now or you’ll never get in the big leagues,’” Runge tells Deadspin.
Phil Wood, a baseball historian and current member of the Washington Nationals broadcast team, says that’s exactly the message Fields always said he was given. “When the big league umps went on strike he was told he could either be a replacement ump, or content himself to be a career minor leaguer,” says Wood, a longtime friend of Fields’.
For Fields, with his meager monthly salary, and the chances of realizing his boyhood dream slipping away, the NL’s pitch was right in his wheelhouse. He took the deal.
He wasn’t alone. Enough minor league umpires agreed to cross the picket lines to get the 1979 season started and get in all the scheduled games despite the union’s walkout.
Runge, at 77, now says he sympathizes with the crossers.
“I had nine years in the minors before I got called up,” Runge says. “If you come to me and I’m honest and you say, ‘You’ve wasted nine years of your life, but now you got a chance to be in the big leagues, but if you don’t come now, you’re never going to get a chance again!’ my answer is going to be, ‘I’m going.’ I’d be lying to myself, I’d be lying to everybody, if I act like I’m going to be the big macho man who says, ‘I wouldn’t!’ You would do that! Everybody would do that! If they tell you you can’t have what you worked your whole life for, you would!”
The union umpires felt pressured by the appearance of so many replacements. Negotiations between the union and MLB got unstuck, and the regular umps returned to work on May 18, 1979. Management had agreed to many of the union’s top demands, including giving all umps two weeks of paid vacation during the season.
There were 12 teams in the NL at that time, meaning as many as six games were being played each day. There were also only 24 full-time umps, who made up the six four-man crews needed to call those games. So to provide for the vacation called for by the new contract, extra umps were required. The NL expanded the full-time umpires stable to 28 when the strike settled.
In what always seemed like a vengeful act aimed at the union, league bosses hired all four new umps from the pool of replacements who’d crossed the picket line. Fields was among those who worked during the strike and were picked to stay on.
The New York Times reported Fields’ salary jumped from $1,600 a month to $50,000 a year—all because of his willingness to be a scab. Fields loved the pay hike, friends say, but money wasn’t the main motivator. How many folks get the chance to live out a childhood dream?
There was, however, a huge price to be paid for the dreamy gig and quintupling of his pay. The union umps made sure of that.
Fields, along with the NL’s other three chosen picket crossers (Dave Pallone, Fred Brocklander, and Lanny Harris) were dubbed “The Class of ’79” by the union vets. From the day the strike was settled, the upperclassmen made it clear they had no intention of playing nice with the plebes.
“The replacements would have to make their own arrangements for hotels, which they were just as happy to do, since the [union] guys weren’t speaking to them,” Cullen now says. “It was a bad situation.”
The veterans wouldn’t eat out or even ride cabs, from airports or hotels or to and from games, with the replacements. Some of the bullying was more than merely passive-aggressive. Pallone, now retired and living in Colorado, remembers a small episode that happened in San Francisco soon after the strike ended that set the tone for the relationship between the vets and the picket crossers.
“I was scheduled to work home plate,” Pallone tells me. “I get to the dressing room and they had put a padlock on my mask so I wouldn’t be able to see through it, and had to get a different mask, and they also cut the straps of my shin guards. They were pretty horrible human beings, to tell you the truth.”
The vets flaunted their hostility toward the newcomers on the field, too. From a 1980 report from the Associated Press on the blue-on-blue enmity: “Veteran umpires, in many cases, have refused any contact with those who worked during the strike, sometimes failing to support them during games and ignoring them off the field.”
In a Sports Illustrated story in 1979, veteran ump Billy Williams openly admitted hazing the newcomers, specifically Fields. “I couldn’t live with myself if I treated the rookies like nothing ever happened,” said Williams. “They took advantage of what we were doing to get to the majors. They cost other minor-league umpires—better umpires—a chance to be here. Ask [Steve Fields] if he could have gotten to the major leagues any other way. If he says he could have, he’s a liar and I’ll tell him that to his face.”
The loneliness of the picket line crossers was never more apparent than in that 1981 game in Cincinnati, where Fields took a foul ball to the face and fellow umps decided they’d literally let the scab bleed on the field rather than offer first aid. That obscene episode at Riverfront Stadium caused National League officials, the very folks who created the awful mess, to admit being appalled by the mistreatment Fields was getting from his co-workers.
“I couldn’t sleep the night I learned he’d been hit in the face with a foul ball and bled all night because nobody would help him,” Cullen told the Washington Post back in the day.
Pallone, the only living member of the NL’s Class of ’79, recalls that he was once “bumped from behind” in an on-field scrum with players when the veteran umps returned. He couldn’t tell for certain who the perpetrator was, and nobody on his crew would help him find the offender. So Pallone threw the closest player out of the game. He later found out he’d ejected an innocent man while the actual culprit went unpunished.
“It was a scar on the face of MLB, because of the fact that it made the umpires look bad,” Pallone says. “Umpires would always come in to help other umpires, for a fight on the field, whatever it might be. But [union umps] let us handle it on our own, which was not a good thing to do. That hurt the game of baseball.”
Runge now admits that vets shunned Class of ’79 members socially. But he pooh-poohs any claim that union umpires let animus for the replacements affect their performance come game time. To Runge, even if the crew chief and the other union umps merely watched as a player and manager tag-teamed Fields in Philadelphia, that wasn’t necessarily nefarious conduct.
“If I have an argument with Larry Bowa and Dallas Green, I don’t want a crew chief or anybody walking in,” he says. “I’d hold my hand up and say, ‘I got this!’ I wasn’t there, but if a crew chief walks in too soon, you diminish the respect that ump is going to get from the players. You need to earn your number in this game. Maybe Fields had trouble doing that. I don’t know.”
Cullen, now living in Norfolk, Va., says he was constantly attempting to get the veteran umps to accept the newcomers, but recalls never coming close to being successful.
Umps weren’t the only ones with labor beefs at the time. The players’ union launched a midseason strike in June 1981, wiping out 713 regular season games. Members went out rather than acquiesce to a demand from management that teams get direct compensation for each player lost to free agency, which was then still in its relative infancy. The MLBPA’s position was that any form of mandatory compensation would water down the free agency chit they’d fought so hard and so long to win.
The union felt the sort of compensation being sought by owners, which would give any team that lost a player a replacement player from the free agent’s new team, was particularly onerous. Players weren’t asking for more concessions from management; they were just trying to hold on to what they’d already won in previous negotiations.
Even so, that was a tough argument for a union to win in the court of public opinion, given the times. Any argument would have been tough in the summer of ’81, in fact.
In retrospect, the players struck at what history recalls as a new low point for organized labor. On August 3, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) went on strike after months of negotiations with the Federal Aviation Administration, demanding improved wages and working conditions, including a shift to a four-day, 32-hour work week. President Ronald Reagan, a former Screen Actors Guild boss who turned vocally anti-union once he’d entered politics, quickly called the strike illegal and fired nearly every career controller before filling the jobs with non-union replacements. Only about 10 percent of the 13,000 controllers across the country kept their job. Americans overwhelmingly supported Reagan’s moves, which not only crushed PATCO, but damaged the entire labor movement in ways that persist to this day. (In August 2017, Reagan was inducted by the Trump administration into the Labor Department’s Hall of Fame.)
Before walking out, the players’ union went to federal court and sued MLB, saying the owners weren’t bargaining in good faith and were only interested in busting MLBPA, much the way Reagan would soon go about busting PATCO. The players cited the owners’ purchase of a $50 million strike-insurance policy as proof they weren’t so keen on negotiating a new contract as they were busting the union. But when Judge Henry Werker declined to issue an injunction against the owners, MLBPA called for the strike.
Secretary of Labor Raymond J. Donovan got involved, demanding that the players union and owners start talking to each other and stop talking to press until a deal was hammered out.
The ultimatum seemed to work. Players went back to work on August 10, less than a week after PATCO got smashed and just one day after holding a rescheduled All-Star game in Cleveland. The players got what they wanted—the direct compensation demand from owners was scrapped. But they took heavy losses along the way, too. A total of 713 games were wiped out, and Donald Fehr, head of the MLB Players Association, said union members lost $4 million per week during the strike. The players’ union had ignored the umpires’ picket lines back in 1979. Bowa now says he was very aware of the labor strife within the umpire ranks, and admits he played favorites in the umpire’s intramural feud: Any enemy of the union was an enemy of the players, too. And when that brawl broke out in Philly, Bowa made sure Fields knew which side he was on.
“I called him a scab,” Bowa says.
Mike Forrest covered news for San Francisco radio and television stations before he took a sports job at Philadelphia’s KYW-TV in 1978. Forrest took his news instincts with him to Philly, as evidenced by the postgame video he and his crew shot after the brawl-filled Phillies/Braves game. As soon as Trillo hit the homer to end the nearly four-and-a-half-hour contest, Forrest led his camera crew onto the field and put a KYW microphone in Steve Fields’ face.
After Fields briefly defends the ninth-inning call (“[Bowa] just missed second base,” he said), Forrest tries to get the ump to talk about having to take on the player and manager by himself.
“Did it bother you that the other umpires didn’t…” Forrest starts to ask.
But before he can even finish the question, let alone before Fields can give an answer, Nick Colosi, who worked the game at first base, appears on the scene and yells something that is clearly very angry but otherwise unintelligible. Fields gets the hint that the veteran umpire doesn’t want him talking to Forrest, and quickly starts walking up into the tunnel leading to the umpires dressing room.
“I told my cameraman to be sure to keep the camera rolling, because if he was going to hit me I wanted it memorialized on tape,” Forrest now recalls. The footage that follows is classic.
Forrest attempts to ask the same question repeatedly while also trying to keep up with Fields. “Did it bother you the other umpires didn’t … Steve, did it bother you at all that you really didn’t get any help from the other umpires?” Forrest says.
Fields starts to answer, saying, “They helped me out…” It’s at this point that Colosi, who had been walking a few steps ahead of Fields and Forrest, turns around upon hearing the question and comes at Forrest. Colosi, a bartender and reputed tough guy at the famed New York nightspot the Copacabana before becoming an ump, shoves the reporter and begins screaming like a cinematic hardass. “Why, you rotten sonuvabitch!” the Sicily-born Colosi yells. “Waddayou mean we didn’t help him out? Waddayou mean we didn’t help him out? What are you trying to start? What are you trying to start, you no-good sonuvabitch?”
Forrest says that when Colosi originally got physical, he thought about retaliating in kind. “My first instinct was to hit back,” he says, “but I realized that our camera was rolling and that wouldn’t look good.”
Eric Gregg, a large-bodied Philadelphian and pioneer among African-American MLB umps, walks past as Colosi screams epithets, but doesn’t jump in the fray. Forrest follows the umps all the way to the locker room, and sees them briefly disappear behind a wall of security. But Frank Pulli, the plate umpire that night, soon walked out to talk to him.
Pulli had been at the center of contentious baseball moments before: He worked first base in the 1974 game in which Hank Aaron hit home run number 715 and broke Babe Ruth’s career record, and he was also at first in Game 4 of the 1978 World Series, when Reggie Jackson of the New York Yankees leaned into a throw from Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Bill Russell on an attempted double play. Pulli’s call, contradicted by video evidence, was immortalized when it helped turn the game and the whole Series in the Yankees favor.
From the KYW tape, it appears Pulli initially wants to calm the storm brewing outside the umpires dressing room. Then Colosi barges back onto the scene and once more begins berating Forrest for asking Fields about the lack of assistance he’d witnessed earlier on the field.
“Why did you ask that question? Why? … You cocksucker!” Colosi yells. “Why you wanna start that bull after the goddamn game? What do you mean we didn’t help him?”
A light from the TV camera goes on, and Pulli decides he’s had enough of the peacemaker role.
“Put that cocksucker down, man! I’ll bust that fucking camera! Put that cocksucker down!” Pulli yells at Forrest and his crew. He then jumps up and swung his metal umpire’s mask at the camera. He connects, and the footage goes dark.
“And we were left with a broken $50,000 camera,” Forrest now says.
After the tape stopped rolling, Forrest recalls fearing that he’d come out of the brawl with some bones as broken as his camera if the irate umpires had their way. But a squad of journalists arrived from the press box just in time to quell the attack. “Just as this was happening, the elevator opened and the print and radio beat reporters tumbled out, asking what was going on,” he said. “That ended it.”
The arrival of the media cavalcade ended the fight. But the ninth-inning call and subsequent brawls dominated the sports news cycle in Philadelphia and across the country.
Pat Polillo, vice president and general manager of KYW-TV, issued a statement calling the umpires’ behavior “an insult to baseball fans and all who care about the rules of society and free press in America.”
National League president Chub Feeney sent Green a telegram the next day. The missive read: “You are hereby suspended commencing with games of Aug. 25 for an indeterminate period of time for your actions toward umpire Steve Fields in the game of Aug. 24.”
Colosi was fined $500 and Pulli $300. Neither Fields nor Gregg were fined.
Green was later informed by Feeney that he could return after sitting out five games and paying a fine of $1,000 “for your language and actions, including making physical contact with and removing the hat (and kicking same) of Umpire Steve Fields.’’
After paying up, Green told Stark of the Philaldelphia Inquirer that he was peeved that umpires Colosi and Pulli got off easier for what they did to Mike Forrest and his camera crew than “what [Green] did to Steve Fields.”
“What’s the difference?” Green said to Stark. “The fact that they were in the tunnel?”
As much as the league office loved Bowa, they couldn’t let this display go unpunished. He was fined $500. The New York Times reported that the league told Bowa his fine breakdown was: “$300 for ‘actions and language’ directed toward Fields, $100 for throwing equipment and $100 for staying in the dugout after his ejection.”
Bowa had some help satisfying the debt. “Fans sent me money, like $20 bills in an envelope, with a note saying, ‘We want to pay your fine!’” Bowa says. He happily accepted the charity: “Five hundred dollars was real money then,” Bowa says.
Forrest says that as the story spread, he was hailed heroically by media types and strangers and “got phone calls from friends and family all over the country.”
“I felt especially good the next day when I turned on The Today Show and Bryant Gumbel was talking about the incident, and running the tape,” he says.
MLB agreed to pay KYW just $800. That small amount, Forrest says, was only intended to cover “the insurance deductible” to get the camera repaired.
Feeney publicly blamed the incident on the KYW news crew, which, he claimed, “seemed determined to pursue the umpires and create a divisive incident.”
Forrest says the umps who attacked him never explained their anger toward him. “Maybe they felt guilty for not supporting [Fields], and took it out on me,” he says.
And while Forrest thinks the piddly fine handed down to the umps by the NL in no way fit their crimes, he says justice was served once the video captured by the smashed camera was made public.
“Those guys made fools of themselves,” he says, “and the footage was broadcast on national TV. I guess that was a form of punishment.”
The National League never issued a public statement about Fields’ call at second base or his behavior in either the on-field squabble or subsequent hallway brawl.
But his MLB career was about to end.
“He was a scab umpire,” Fields’ friend Bill Perkins says, “and he knew they were just waiting for something to get him on.”
The 1981 season ended about a month after the melee, and baseball’s labor issues were yet again put on the front burner. The umpires’ CBA expired, and negotiations between MLPUA and MLB were a top priority in baseball during the offseason.
Fields figured that members of the Class of ’79 were always vulnerable, and so he wasn’t happy that the fracas in Philly put him in the spotlight at this tenuous time. Fields was soon telling friends that his job was in jeopardy, and that he was worried he’d be done in by labor strife, not because of his performance on the field that night. He always stuck by the call at second base.
Just a couple months after the spat, Gregg and Colosi, who failed to protect Fields when he was set upon by a swarm of Phillies, would be asked by MLB to call games in the 1981 World Series—the plummest assignment in the profession. But Fields was soon hearing that his career had become a bargaining chit in talks with the umps union.
Fields was told in late fall that he was no longer an MLB umpire, realizing is worst fears. He told friends the league asserted he was being let go because of his umping skills. He never bought that excuse. Fields knew he was the only umpire fired after the 1981 season, and that no National League ump had been fired for performance since 1977.
Fields didn’t take his baseball banishment quietly. He publicly linked the firing to the Green/Bowa/Forrest affair.
“That incident made me a conspicuous target,” Fields told the Washington Post. “Baseball’s afraid of another umpires’ strike this spring, so they decided to throw a bone to the umpires union to appease them. I’m the bone.”
He announced he was suing baseball, telling the Providence Journal he was seeking $1 million for “breach of contract.”
He retained Raymond Fraley, a childhood friend turned celebrated plaintiffs attorney. Fraley and Fields had played baseball in Alexandria, Va., as kids, and later worked together at the local post office around the holidays. They’d lost touch through the years. But, just as Fields was seeking help for his fight against MLB, he read a story in the Washington Post about his old friend, now an attorney based in Fayetteville, Tenn., who was getting lots of attention for representing Victoria Price, one of the alleged victims in the controversial Scottsboro rape case in 1931.
Fraley set out to get his boyhood baseball buddy paid. And he knew how to work the media. Together they went on a press blitz, telling of the woeful treatment the umpire got and how they’d get retribution.
Cullen defended the firing, telling the Providence Journal that Fields lost his job because of “low ratings” and his failure to get along with other umps. The NL administrator admitted, however, that Fields had been working in a hostile environment.
“Steve’s work deteriorated,” Cullen said. “Part of the problem was the lack of companionship and his inability to relax with his fellow umpires after the game.” (In interviews after the Philly brouhaha, Cullen began comparing the 1979 umpires strike with PATCO’s disastrous 1981 walkout in hopes of retroactively justifying the use of replacement umps, telling the New York Times that MLB umpires “were just like the air traffic controllers.”)
Fraley went to the press to pooh-pooh Cullen’s stated rationale for firing Fields.
“If his performance suffered it was the other umpires failing to protect him,” Fraley told the Providence paper. “The ostracism and antagonism was unbelievable.”
Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post asked Fields after he got fired why he stayed on a job for three years if his big-league experience was really so awful from the start.
“All I know is baseball,” Fields said. “I ain’t got nothing.”
Fraley, still a practicing attorney in Tennessee, says that after he began representing Fields, he heard from other people in baseball about the mistreatment his client had endured. Fields didn’t have to make up any tales of woe; he’d lived ‘em out.
“It was pretty awful,” he says. “They really did let him bleed.”
Fraley recalls that lots of folks wanted to hear those tales, and so he also spoke about Fields’ plight in front of legal conferences. And he recalls that he and Fields were doing great while arguing the case in the court of public opinion.
Phillies backup catcher Bob Boone was among those who stuck their neck out for Fields. Shortly after Fields was let go, Boone told the Washington Post that the ump’s dismissal, like his shoddy treatment on the job, was obviously labor related. “What’s happened to [Fields] sickens me,” Boone said. “It’s inhuman. I’m sure his firing is because he’s one of the so-called scabs. It’s not coincidence.”
Steve Nicosia, a longtime MLB catcher who got to know Fields when both were in the minors, also lamented at the time the treatment Fields faced in interviews he gave at the time, and now. “I get the problems the union had with his crossing the picket line and all that. I get it,” Nicosia tells me. “But once they were on the field, Steve Fields did an honest day’s work, gave you no attitude, gave you an honest job behind the plate. It was hard for me to be in the middle of it. I had no problems at all with him. It’s a shame. I get it, but it’s a shame.”
Ellis Valentine had reason to be upset with Fields. While Green and Bowa were Fields’ last ejections, Valentine was his first: He got ejected by Fields from an April 21, 1979 game when the Expos visited Chicago. Valentine says he was upset after getting called out at second, but not with Fields.
“Steve was working first base that game and didn’t even make the call,” Valentine says. (The box score backs up Valentine’s memory, though newspaper accounts indicate it was Fields’ call that got the squabble started.)
Valentine says he threw his helmet into right field, and unluckily for him it took an odd bounce into the path of Fields, who was walking from first base toward the outfield with the inning over.
“It sort of spun near him,” he said, “and he just thought I was throwing at him.” Fields ejected the player for throwing the helmet, and Valentine accosted the replacement ump to say he wasn’t the target, but that only heated the squabble up. Valentine’s behavior toward Fields got him a three-game suspension.
But through the years and despite their baggage, Valentine says he grew to feel sympathy for Fields. Valentine says he remembers that it was tough to watch how Fields was treated once the veteran umpires came back from the strike.
“I never held the strike situation against him,” says Valentine. “Hey, somebody had to be out there if we were going to get to play.”
Pallone tells me that he always felt that Fields was canned to appease the union.
“Absolutely,” says Pallone. “I believe that. Major League Baseball just didn’t know how to handle the situation. Sacrificed? Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.”
Yet Paul Runge, head of the umps union, now denies that the union ever discussed Fields in the 1981 negotiations.
“We would never do that,” he says. “We didn’t do that. I was there. We would never risk that sort of liability, to get sued over that.”
As it was, there was no unlawful dismissal lawsuit from Fields over his firing. Fraley now concedes that for all the bluster he gave the media back in 1981, he couldn’t ever come up with a strong legal angle that Fields could base his case on. When it came time to back up their public threats by actually filing the seven-figure lawsuit they’d boasted about, Fraley and Fields folded.
“Steve didn’t even have a contract [with the National League],” Fraley says. “He was an employee at will. I looked everywhere I could for another theory, intentional interference of a man’s right to work, things like that, anything I can hang a hat on to sue. But I never did find one.”
Fraley says that when he broke the bad news, at the same time he told Fields that he had no case against MLB, the attorney tempered the impact by offering to provide his client another sort of legal service that, as it turned out, was very necessary at the time: “His marriage was over,” Fraley says. “I really felt awful for him, that I couldn’t do anything for him with [the umpiring firing]. So I said, ‘Tell you what, Steve: Since it didn’t work out, I’ll get you a divorce for free!’ And I did.”
Neither of Fields’ ex-wives returned requests for comments for this story.
Unemployed and unmarried, Fields went back to his hometown after the baseball lawsuit pursuit died. He told friends that being perhaps America’s most famous scab hurt his job search. After a few years of getting used to a major-league salary, he was again as broke as he’d been in his minor-league days. He took a job with what he said was the only place that would give him full time employment: the U.S. Postal Service. Mere months after being the center of attention in the baseball world for that call at second base at Veterans Stadium, Fields was assigned work as a mail carrier at the Landmark Mall, a suburban shopping center. So he had the same job he’d had as he a young man, only without the dreams.
Perkins says that no matter how ugly his MLB umpiring career was from start to finish, Fields was a celebrity to all the other letter carriers upon his return to the job. Fields would only talk about his time in the big leagues if prompted by co-workers, Perkins says. But whenever they got him talking, they were wowed by the anger he retained toward his former MLB peers. “Steve told me once that there were a couple umpires that if he saw them on the street he’d try to run them over,” says Ted Young.
Young also recalls a supervisor at the Post Office who helped run a local Little League in Northern Virginia, and that Fields would occasionally do games there “when he needed help” finding umps. Fields had by then had it with the grown-up version of the game, however.
“I don’t even look in the papers to see the standings,” Fields told the Washington Post after he’d taken the Postal Service job. “The way the National League has treated me, they’ve cut me off baseball. I just don’t give a damn any more.”
Friends say his actions backed his bitter words.
“I know they gave him lifetime passes to baseball games, so he could go to any park anywhere at any time,” says Perkins. “But he wouldn’t go. He said he just wouldn’t do it. He was still pissed. People would try to get him to go with them, but I really don’t think he ever went to another game.”
Fields had liver trouble throughout his adult life, according to friends, who say it was congenital, and not related to his lifestyle. “He never drank at all,” says Young.
Young says Fields was told that his clean living made him eligible for the organ transplant list. But he declined. “He said he was just tired of all the getting poked by doctors,” Young says. “He just gave up, really.”
Fields’ friends say that as angry as he was about how his MLB umpiring career turned out, he never second-guessed crossing the picket line.
“He knew that that was the only way he would have ever got to the big leagues,” says longtime friend Bill Perkins.
Lifelong friend David Walkman likewise never heard Fields offer any regrets.
“We talked about it,” says Walkman. “A lot of guys never get a chance [at the big leagues]. This was a chance to make it. And he did make it! But, it just happened that it was during a strike. He’d do it all over again.”
After Fields accepted his death sentence, Young says, he helped survivors assemble his lifetime-spanning collection of baseball memorabilia. The kitty included scads of signed baseballs and jerseys, plus the umpire’s gear from his stay in the big leagues. They planned to get rid of almost all the trinkets, Young says, though they kept “Mick 7” vanity license plate in the family.
Labor pains and baseball remained fast friends in the years after Fields got thrown out of the game. Before the 1995 season, the owners threatened to lock out umpires in order to get collective bargaining agreement negotiations going. And the league made clear its intention to use replacement umpires again, for the first time since the Class of ’79 was foisted on the union.
And owners followed through on the lockout threat.
But this time around, MLB made sure that only amateur umpires and retired minor league umpires served as replacements, so no prospective major league umps were asked to cross picket lines. That meant nobody would be punished, as Fields surely was, for taking a shot at living out a childhood dream.
And so Fields lived long enough to see that maybe his suffering hadn’t been in vain, and that he’d left a mark on the game he’d once loved.
“We learned a lesson in 1979,” Marty Springstead, the American League’s executive director of umpiring, told the New York Times as the 1995 job action loomed. “We don’t want to jeopardize a guy’s career for a short-term use.”